Format of Purple Line up to voters

By Katherine Shaver
Friday, October 8, 2010; B4

Maryland voters' choice of governor could determine whether passengers on a future Purple Line will ride trains or buses, a decision that comes at a critical time for a project about to begin competing for federal money.

Transportation issues have taken a back seat to the economic downturn in the race between Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) and challenger Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R). But the two candidates' different approaches to a Purple Line - O'Malley wants light rail, Ehrlich favors bus rapid transit - provide a sharp contrast on a proposal that political leaders in voter-rich Montgomery and Prince George's counties have called their top transportation priority.

In the past two governor's races, candidates worked to woo Montgomery voters with the $2.56 billion Intercounty Connector, which Ehrlich pushed to construction while governor from 2003 to 2007 and O'Malley pledged to continue.

But with the economy still in a slump and state coffers depleted, neither candidate has been trumpeting new multi-billion-dollar projects. The next governor also will face mounting pressure to repair decaying bridges and aging roads while helping Metro fix safety problems highlighted by the fatal June 2009 Red Line crash.

The timing of the Nov. 2 election puts O'Malley's light rail plan in a precarious position, as Maryland transit planners finalize their initial proposal to seek federal funding for at least half of a light rail line's estimated $1.68 billion in construction costs. The Maryland Transit Administration has spent eight years and about $40 million in state and federal money planning the 16-mile line between Bethesda and New Carrollton.

Maryland transit officials said they plan to enter the federal funding competition in November. They expect to hear early next year whether the Federal Transit Administration will grant permission to do more-detailed engineering, the first hurdle in a funding process that takes several years.

A switch to bus rapid transit would delay the project because the state stopped that planning after O'Malley chose light rail in August 2009. It also would probably jeopardize a Purple Line's chances for federal funding because state and local leaders would be split. The Prince George's and Montgomery county councils endorsed light rail, saying it would carry more people and spur more development around stations.

As the fight for the Metrorail extension in Northern Virginia illustrates - it's estimated to cost as much as $6.6 billion - winning federal construction money requires a well-orchestrated and united political push from local, state and congressional leaders. Business groups, which played a key role in the Silver Line's funding, have endorsed light rail for a Purple Line.

"If Ehrlich wins, the whole thing is gone," said Ralph Bennett, president of Purple Line Now, a light rail advocacy group.

Andy Barth, an Ehrlich campaign spokesman, said Ehrlich has no plans to kill the project. Ehrlich's administration studied light rail and bus rapid transit for a Purple Line, but that analysis didn't get far enough for Ehrlich to choose between the two. However, Barth said, Ehrlich thinks bus rapid transit would provide the same benefits for less money.

"He thinks it's important for people to understand the money to build light rail simply doesn't exist," Barth said.

Neither side has said how it would pay for a Purple Line, but both candidates have said they would not raise the state gasoline tax. Under federal guidelines, the state would have to pay about half the construction costs, which would amount to about $800 million for light rail. O'Malley has said he also will seek federal aid for a $1.8 billion light rail Red Line in Baltimore. Ehrlich has said he would build a Red Line only as bus rapid transit.

The state's Purple Line analysis found that building a bus rapid transit system would cost $386 million to $1 billion, making the state's share $193 million to $500 million.

The Purple Line proposal has created unusual political relationships. The Greater Washington Board of Trade endorsed Ehrlich in his two previous gubernatorial bids, including his 2006 race against O'Malley. This time, the board endorsed O'Malley, citing his support for light rail. The endorsement was all the more remarkable because the board's former chairman, John M. Kane, is the husband of Ehrlich's running mate, Mary Kane.

Maryland Transportation Secretary Beverley K. Swaim-Staley said she's optimistic that Congress will include more money for transit when it considers a six-year transportation spending bill next year. The state also could pursue public-private partnerships in which developers would help pay to build Purple Line stations, she said.

Construction would start in late 2014 at the earliest, she said. Officials have estimated that the Purple Line would take three to five years to complete.

Michael D. Madden, the state's Purple Line study project manager, said he's "very confident" that the light rail plan will meet federal funding criteria.

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